Rotten Coconuts and Other Strange Fruits
In Oakland, California, where I live, I'm always greeted with laughter when I explain my interest in Indiansinvolved in hip hop. "What," people ask, "would upwardly mobile, predominantly middle class Indians with immigrant backgrounds have in common with blacks in America?" Not much ...at least not on the basis of everyday lived experience. Yet, slowly but steadily the landscape is changing. There seem to be emerging cultural movements, spearheaded by new generation South Asian Americans, which have embraced hip hop -- a predominantly black American cultural form -- as a means of expression and as a medium for forming cross racial alliances. Challenging narrow definitions of "Indianess" held by members of their insular ethnic communities, these participants in hip hop's growing community have adopted the creative and political genius of rap music to express a new perspective.
The personal accounts of their participation in a black cultural form and insightful analysis on racial dynamics reflect a departure from the historical role played by the Indian community in America, one characterized by the narrow pursuit of personal enrichment, cultural and political insulation, (even from other South Asians and working class Indians), and often, anti-black racism. These local second generation movements are most visible in large metropolises with large communities of color such as New York, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The state of California, now home to the largest population of Indians (and perhaps South Asians) in the nation, reveals a diverse yet increasingly segregated and polarized population based on racial and class groupings. Thecity of Oakland is similar.
Rooted in Racial Politics
Hip hop began in the early 1970s in the black American and Latino communities of the South Bronx as an explicitly racialized voice of resistance which decried institutional racism and narrated experiences of everyday life in the inner-cities. Urban re-industrialization, the slashing of welfare and other social services, and neo-conservative policies, which followed the prosperous post-WWII era all negatively affected poor communities in cities across the U.S. Rooted in this context of widespread unemployment and poverty, hip hop was created by black inner-city youth as a medium to tell their own stories, and depict their experiences, locations and communities. A broad cultural phenomenon, hip hop includes the elements of rapping, breakdancing, graffiti, and deejaying. Hip hop's content and membership has been, from its inception, a collection of styles and members: from Puerto Rican b-boys to Greek graffiti artists, and from the Jamaican art of toasting to incorporating the latest musical technology. This two-fold legacy continues even today as hip hop remains rooted in the black urban (male) experience while morphing to incorporate the growing diversity of its global members.
"Brown on the outside, black on the inside"
I first heard the metaphor title when KB, a member of the Indian hip hop group Karmacy, recounted his "rotten coconut story": he got this nickname from fellow Indian students at UC Berkeley due to his different clothing and speech styles, and his black friends. I was familiar with fruit metaphors, such as bananas and coconut (and of course, the well-known, yet less fruity, "oreo"), which are commonly used to describe people of color seen as "trying to be white." But while those fruits are perfectly healthy, I noticed this reference stigmatized those seen as "trying to be black" as "rotten" and "downwardly" assimilating. Such metaphors are witty and seemingly simplistic; however, they also articulate a particular understanding of race -- and especially of blacks -- which is commonly expressed by both first and second generation Indians. This perspective views identity as fixed and hierarchical and regards racial groups as separate, with little in common. Underlying this understanding is the idea of race as something "natural" -- whether biologically or culturally so.
Even the active consumption of black popular culture does not prevent young South Asians from holding such views. This convenient distillation of a culture from the lives and experiences that create it mimics the age-old relationship between black art/music and the white audience. Many of the Indian students I met at UC Berkeley, who were born and raised in the Bay Area, tell me that they have never "really talked to" a black person in their lives -- although their favorite musical artist is Tupac, they love sporting the black-owned and hip hop-inspired clothing line, FUBU (For Us By Us), and are affluent enough to be gifted the much-rapped about Lexus GS-300 for their 18th birthday. Indeed, many of these students don't see any similarities at all between Indians and blacks, citing attitudes towards education and sex as examples of cultural differences. South Asians who are seen not only to be adopting black culture and style, but who actually maintain relationships with blacks are frequently viewed as "diluted," "inauthentic," and as having misguided loyalties.
Bridging the Gap
The challenge of forming and explaining their complex, multiple identities is a tough one for South Asians involved in hip hop. DJ Bella, an Indian deejay who has worked on the radio and who spins records at reggae and hip hop parties, says that she consistently has to deal with being the only Indian in all-black settings. Instead of avoiding these sometimes-challenging situations, however, she engages people and often makes the link between Indians' and West Indians' experiences with colonialism and indentured labor. At the same time, the need to explain her relation to black music and art can also be a burden. She also feels that perhaps her being a woman and non-black has affected her place in the industry, where she often has to fight to be heard.
Different routes have been used by desis to feel more connected to the hip hop communitybeyond just a level of simple musical appreciation. Learning about black history, then, is one such path to the reworking of South Asian identities in America. Rakesh, a Black Studies major and hip hop fan, explained to me:
I've really been able to understand the whole nature of what's been going on for so long to African Americans. And I really want to contribute in some way. Not only in helping them, but in helping my own people -- Asians, and just people of color in general, to understand that we all have something in common, you know? And just 'cause we may not understand exactly what that individual or th[ose] people have gone through, we can still understand by using our own history because [we] ourselves have been oppressed and colonized.
Understanding the historical context underlying hip hop also allows some youth and young adults to find their place within the hip hop community -- a community which openly states that race matters and thus forces you to engage with the legitimacy of your place as a non-black person participating in a black art form. RSun, the Indian member of the Bay Area hip hop group, the Feenom Circle (http://www.feenomcircle.com), feels that one has to work twice as hard on the mic as a non-black person in hip hop to get half the recognition.
Chirag, aka Chee Malabar, one half of the hip hop group called The Himalayan Project (http://www.himlayan-project.com), moved from India at the age of 11 to a racially-mixed neighborhood in San Francisco. Not speaking English, he attempted first to befriend other Indian youth, but they ignored him as an uncool 'FOB.' Eventually, he learned English by befriending and rapping with black students. Malabar told me about what happens when he attends open mic battles where individuals 'freestyle,' i.e. compete with rhymes delivered off the top of their heads. Speaking about how black emcees perceive him before they hear him, he says:
Oh, but you could definitely sense sometimes. Not really some hostility, but kind of, "oh, let's see what he can do. Let's see what he's about" kind of attitude. Like when I go to [open mics and] if I'm around people I don't know, a lot of times they'll say some shit just to test me, just cause I'm the only Indian. They may say little comments in their free-style rhymes calling me out...But I understand. Because I'm an Indian in hip hop, so I expect that. But I'm not going to give it back because that's not the way to handle it...Like if somebody's being ignorant, I'm not going to be ignorant back.
Despite these difficulties, it appears that this young, courageous lot is not dissuaded from participating in hip hop music and culture. They relate their eagerness to talk about their racial identities and their love of hip hop, citing the lack of discussion on this very topic among their community peers. For them, race is not a problem that is "solved" by or through their affiliation with hip hop. Instead, it appears that they acknowledge the complexities and contradictions of their multiple identities, resulting from being looked upon as an "insider" and "outsider" in both communities. For all its own contradictions, they speak of hip hop as representing a community of interest in which individuals can affiliate across class, racial, and gender lines. They may come together against political issues surrounding police brutality and the ill effects of capitalism, as well as to simply have a good time.
Many of the young artists acknowledge that certain strands of hip hop glorify the values of patriarchy and gross materialism -- which they also understand as mainstream American values that have now become turned into racially coded pathologies. Neither is this a significant departure from the values espoused by South Asian professional communities in the U.S.. DJ Bella faces sexism and misogyny from both the male artists she works with and admires, as well as from her driving passion -- the music, itself (and, of course, in her corporate job). Instead of foregoing the art, however, Bella answers back by consciously balancing out male and female artists when she spins at parties.
If you listen to the mixed tape I just made, I'll play a raw male track, but right after that, I'll play a raw female track -- an 'answer track.' I also play a lot of female artists, who don't usually get airplay. If I just love the beat of an especially foul song that degrades women, I'll play the least offensive verse, or just the break (the instrumental portion) and then mix it into another song.
In addition to negotiating their positions within their musical communities, groups such as The Himalayan Project and Karmacy also engage with their ethnic communities. These two groups direct their lyrics toward both mainstream and South Asian audiences in an attempt to make them accountable for their in/actions. Chee Malabar raps about the Indian immigrant experience and the effects of his personal decision to affiliate with a black cultural form in a verse of "I, Self:"
Mohandas Gandhi to Washington.
From celibate vows to doing whores,
my mind got its own religious course.
God and grief. Blunts and beef.
Living at odds with my peeps,
Through my thoughts, clothes, and my speech.
Young Indians in hip hop do not seek to disengage from their ethniccommunities. On the contrary; while fighting for recognition as talented rappers, deejays, or fans in the hip hop community, they simultaneously compel a reckoning of their presence as South Asian Americans. In Outcasted by Karmacy (from the compilation "Passage to India") KB clearly aligns himself with the Indian community. In this verse, he addresses the misrepresentations of Indians and discusses his own identity as one that challenges the limits of what is assumed by notions of heredity:
To all the menaces
Kicking their subtle prejudice,
Addressing us with stereotypical references.
And still oppressing us
By filling the syllabus
With lessons of how they got the best of us
In ancient fisticuffs.
Malicious messages taken from history texts
And such, are locked in mental prisons
For unprecedented sentences.
Supposedly what I'm supposed to be
and what was meant for me,
Is told through the odyssey
Of my ancestry.
Instead, I choose to separate
Destiny and heredity
And bomb everybody's perception of our identity.
By taking a serious look at the lives and lyrics of these young South Asians involved in the production of a black cultural form, it appears that negotiations of race take place on multiple fields. Challenged as not being Indianenough due to their relationships with blacks, and questioned for their legitimacy as non-blacks in hip hop, they challenge predetermined notions of race through the medium they know best -- whether it be the records they mix, or the verses they spit. Through their music and their very presence, desi hip hop heads may not provide an ultimate answer for the question of race in contemporary America; but as they, themselves, continue to engage with the issue, they force us to reconsider our own rigid ideas about race and identity.